Souhan: Tubby and Kill power coaches? Deference isn't deserved

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2012 - 9:13 AM

The university allows both to operate as power coaches, even though neither has won enough at Minnesota to justify that deference.

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The Gophers thought they had landed a legend when they hired Tubby Smith. Check his record.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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In the last week, we've discovered that the key members of the Gophers athletic department suffer from an iron deficiency.

Tubby Smith does not wield an iron hand. Jerry Kill does not possess an iron jaw.

Smith, the storied Gophers basketball coach, revealed that he almost kicked star center Trevor Mbakwe off the team following the most recent of Mbakwe's legal problems. Almost punishing an athlete is like almost picking up the bill at a restaurant. Pulling your wallet halfway out of your pocket does not constitute partial payment.

This week, when reporters told Smith that Mbakwe was headed to Miami for a hearing that could eventually result in jail time, Smith said, "Maybe you know more than I do. I don't know.''

Smith has a knack for running off talented players, but Mbakwe keeps hanging around, getting into just enough trouble to embarrass the university but not enough for Smith to take meaningful action, or even keep track of his star.

If this were an isolated example of a power coach protecting a standout player, it would be less troubling, but it dovetails with Smith's softer-than-polenta approach.

The Gophers thought they were hiring a legend when they landed Smith. So far, he has a 38-49 record in the Big Ten, has watched key players transfer and has insinuated that his problems stem from the lack of a practice facility. Iron hand? It's not even iron-ish.

Last year, Kill lobbied to receive a contract extension before he had won his second game at Minnesota. On Saturday, Kill's Gophers lost to Northwestern, leaving him 2-8 in his first 10 Big Ten games. He suffered a seizure after the game. The university called it a "minor seizure,'' meaning that a "minor seizure'' is one that the public doesn't see.

On Tuesday, Gophers PR folks put out the word that Kill did not want to answer questions about his health at his weekly news conference, even though he is a highly paid state employee and public figure whose health could determine whether he becomes a success. Also this week, the Gophers announced that they were paying $800,000 to get out of playing games against North Carolina, a mediocre football program from a basketball conference.

In one week, Kill ducked two groups of people who couldn't frighten a first-grader: Tar Heels football players and Minnesota reporters.

What Kill and Smith have in common is this: The university allows both to operate as power coaches, even though neither has won enough at Minnesota to justify the deference with which they are treated.

Smith has been a disappointment. He has enough talent to win big this year. If he doesn't, we will hear excuses about practice facilities and injuries.

It is too early in Kill's tenure to call him a disappointment. He may well return the Gophers to the level they attained under Glen Mason, when they played in minor bowls and pulled off the occasional upset. But there is little evidence on the field so far to suggest that those days are on the horizon.

Neither Kill nor Smith has produced like a power coach. Both act like one.

It is clear what the university must do. These men need oversight. The university must hire someone who can tell Smith that he is responsible for his players' actions and that any complaints he has about a practice facility must be uttered internally. The university must hire someone who can tell Kill that he can't spend $800,000 of the school's money to avoid a team he should be able to beat and that he must face questions about his health and his program like a grown man.

It is time for the University of Minnesota to become innovative and hire someone who can take charge of this mess, perhaps even direct these employees.

That's it: The athletic department needs a director. You could even call this person an "athletic director.''

It's a radical notion, but worth a try.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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